February 22, 2016

Top down control is an illusion most of the time when you are in a co-operative

William’s Stewart’s recent article in the Times Education Supplement (TES) TES link about the apparent loss of autonomy for schools/academies when they join a multi academy trust (MAT) suggested increasingly control and authority for the CEO. I always find this sort of argument pretty difficult to stomach because the leadership, management structures and schemes of delegation vary so much from one MAT to another.

Our trust is not alone in being driven by a set of values and principles that we do our utmost to adhere to. As a co-operative trust, with The Co-operative Group as our sponsor, we are establishing modern approaches to well established co-operative values such as self-responsibility, equity and equality. It is tough at times because as a co-operative we place a strong emphasis on trying to engage with key stakeholders in our communities including the local governing body. I don’t mind admitting that I get frustrated at times because engaging in a meaningful way does take time and I sometimes long for a command and control approach with decisions imposed rather than discussed. This isn’t our way of working because it downplays the importance of locality, context and knowledge which local governors provide. It also enables the sponsor’s governors who sit on the local governing body to add value to the communities they serve.

Our trust board established a strategic plan last year taking into account the views of governors. It took quite some time to agree and finalise but there is adherence to it and there is a sense that our trust is driving hard towards achieving it. There was much gained from gathering the broad spectrum of views that exist within our governing bodies because it establishes a ‘buy in’ and commitment that goes much deeper than those imposed by others.

My role as the CEO (we prefer the term Director of the Trust even though I am not a ‘Director’; it’s a long story and not one for this article) is to help the senior leaders and governors to achieve our ambitious trust goals. This requires vision, leadership and dogged determination on my part but it also relies on highly credible colleagues working centrally in our trust as well as senior leaders and governors working cooperatively and effectively for the benefit of pupils/students and staff.

A key factor that distinguishes us from some other trusts is that we do work very effectively in some of the most diverse and challenging communities in northern England. Nearly all of our academies were inadequate when they joined the trust and all but one are now good. It can be done and it doesn’t need a power wielding CEO to achieve it. We do try to create ‘a bespoke’ solution because we do not believe all communities and school solutions are the same. This may be why some trusts have tried and failed where we have managed to make things work.

I have been teaching since 1979 and initially I thought that effective leadership was a single bold colour but many years later, including 13 years as a senior HMI, I have grown to admire and respect subtle shades that are not always as clear and as dominant as others would expect.